When I heard Mr. Brontewell died I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t bring myself to go to church anymore, mass just wasn’t the same without him playing the piano. The psalms sounded stale without his hands. Perhaps I needed an excuse to no longer go. Perhaps my faith had never been strong from the start. The stars in the night sky hung in the air like delicate ornaments. Is Mr. Brontewell watching from above?
“John, what’re you doing out here. You’re not trying to—”
“No. Dad. I quit smoking a long while ago.”
“The party is inside,” James Attaway gesticulated toward the door. Laughter, light, and club soda wafted through the air, mixing with the late summer wisteria and cool moist air. Inside Aunt Julia worked diligently to prepare rhubarb pie, a favorite of the family. Uncle Bobby and Sam were cleaning the remnants of dinner from the table. The children retreated to the living room to watch television and play.
“I know,” John said looking at the faraway stars. “I just needed air is all.” Six months without a cigarette, yet the urge still would creep up like stalker of the night. Fresh air calmed the mind more than the smoke.
“Well, it is a nice night out. I’m sure Aunt Julia would appreciate us being out of the kitchen while she makes her rhubarb pie anyway.” All his life James Attaway wanted to be a father. Yet when John was born he never knew what to do from there. For twenty-five years he was still trying to figure out how to be the man his son needed. “Your wife was mentioning how proud she is of you,” he said as he kept his eyes fixated on the front door, seeing the younger children play with the dog. Their laughter a far-off memory from youth long over.
“I don’t think I deserve any praise though,” John said. Every Sunday after mass Mr. Brontewell would give me lessons. As a kid I never paid all that much attention. As I got older I would start skipping lessons to get drunk, smoke weed, or snort coke. I thought drugs were better than art. I thought they were better than life. Yet Mr. Brontewell would never get angry with me, each time I missed it he would always say that we could try again next week. Next week and next week turned into next month and next year. He wanted me to get better before I knew I needed to. He never got mad.
“What? Why not? I’m proud of you too, John. Hell, I can’t even stay away from booze for more than a week.” Proud was a word new to James Attaway’s tongue. John’s eyes widened but pride prevented them from glossing over. He gave a half smile.
“I’ve only been sober for six months. Really, it isn’t anything amazing like these people you hear about who’ve been sober for ten to thirty years.” In the last years of Mr. Brontewell’s life he developed cerebral palsy and could no longer play the piano. His hands shook too much to maintain a chord. His hands shook too much to play the songs he spent his whole life learning. He said it pained him that he couldn’t play anymore. I told him how I thought it was a sad pity to spend his life playing piano and then be rendered to be unable to play. I said it was a waste. His eyes grew gentle. Even when I was at my most vile to him, he still was gentle. He told me that he was happy to have filled his life with music. Yes, misery set in at the thought of no longer being able to play. But, I didn’t throw my life away, he said. I did something. I played for God, and I know a grand waits for me in heaven. I’m old now, he said, I don’t need to play piano anymore. Rather, I’d like to hear you play.
“Everyone needs to start somewhere. They’d never be sober for that long if they never made it through a day.”
“I heard Mr. Brontewell died.” He must have died while I was in rehab. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Er…I didn’t want to bring down the mood. Tonight’s supposed to be a happy occasion. It is your birthday goddammit.”
“I never got to tell Mr. Brontewell I made it out of rehab. I never got to tell him I got sober.”
James Attaway sighed. Now or never to be a father. “You know, I’m sure he’s watching over us right now. He sees from Heaven that you’re sober and he’s cheering you on each step of the way,” He let out a laugh, “You know when I was a young boy my dad, your grandfather, would say that shooting stars were the dead winking at us. Letting us know from a distance that they’re still watching. Who knows, if you look up at them enough you might see one.” James Attaway gave an anxious turn to the front door. He felt something. A close distance from his son, yet far away and detached. He did not understand the feeling, so he hid it away. “Now come inside. It’s your party, you should be present.”
“I’m going to practice piano, while Aunt Julia bakes her pie.”
“What? In the middle of your party? Why now? Don’t you think it’s too late?” The stars watched from the heavens, guiding the lost souls to their rightful homes. A streak of ethereal light danced across the sky. In the ephemeral moment a star fell from it’s height and dashed across the dark canvas. A wink perhaps, a wink from Mr. Brontewell. Approval. Happiness. Pride.
John took his eyes off the stars and turned to the front door. He walked past his father and paused before entering the house, “I need to make up lost time.”